A little more than 6 years ago, shortly after Comic Con 2014, Legendary shifted direction and changed the title of one of their upcoming releases… which led to this op/ed on movie franchises and the titles chosen for the films. I’m fairly certain this was written BEFORE we knew this movie was tied to the Godzilla universe.
Show of hands, please. Where did King Kong come from? Skull Island, that place west of Sumatra with a big giant mountain that resembles a skull, right? O.K., I just wanted to make sure we are on the same page. Let us keep in mind, however, that my reading audience is secular, targeting a specific demographic that would know this little tidbit. Legendary Pictures doubts the general public will know this trivial knowledge. The end result is Jordan Vogt-Robert’s film, starring Tom Hiddleston (THOR, THE AVENGERS), announced at Comic-Con as SKULL ISLAND, is getting a name change. Sort of. KONG: SKULL ISLAND is the re-title, adding the highly recognized KONG moniker to the project, so there is no doubt that the film features King Kong in some manner. It makes me ask a new question. Is middle American John Q. Public who does the daily 9-5 that clueless? The answer is, regrettably, yes.
It’s not that said representative demographic of movie viewers are dumb. But the adage of keep it simple stupid is truly the mantra that must be practiced in marketing when dealing with the public. Before you shake your head at this statement, take into account we’re talking about a culture that has to print the word HOT on coffee cups. Also consider not everyone is a movie fanatic or nerd, so to say. In the daily lives of your typical American, movies are only a recreational hobby; a family outing, the focus of a date, or something on that level. It’s simple advertising 101. It surely makes future franchising (Hollywood’s new catchphrase) simple, as upcoming films could be prefaced by the same KONG. The average American sees that brand name for franchise X and it registers in their mind that this is a film dealing with X. The brand name is what attracts people to a product be it food, cleaning products or heavy metal bands. This isn’t new with anything to deal with King Kong, either. King Kong sequels, be they movies or books, have, in nearly all instances, invoked his name in their titles. The first filmed sequel SON OF KONG, the infamous KONG LIVES, Joe DeVito’s beautiful book KONG: KING OF SKULL ISLAND. All of them tell us it’s about King Kong in the title. The brand recognition is there and so is the dollar advantage to the movie studio. King Kong is a studio creation and follows the template for films of that era, a time before numbers really dumbed down the creative process while making it easier for the marching ants of middle America to identify with a movie franchise.
Which makes me happy Legendary didn’t call it KING KONG 2: SKULL ISLAND. I would have had a conniption fit had they gone that route. The venerable practice of adding a number to the movie’s original title that started in the 1950’s with Hammer’s QUARTERMASS 2 and just went out of control in the 70’s and 80’s Annoys me to no end. There was a time when everything seemed to have a number. THE GODFATHER II, THE FRENCH CONNECTION II and so forth. To a movie studio, it ensures brand familiarity. But to a movie fan, adding a number is the dumbest titling, showing lack of anything creative. A number tells you nothing about the movie. The STAR WARS films were episodes, but they had titles, the Indiana Jones films had name invoking adventures after RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, something we’ll touch on shortly. But the titles in both examples at least gave you some idea of the story. Then there are directors of overindulgence, like Michael Bay, who utilize both the numeric and titular designation alongside one another. TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, for example. Or is it T4? Or TRANS4MERS or TRANSFOURMERS? At this point, you not only have brand name recognition you understand some of what might be happening in the narrative. Jump forward to today with Marvel Studios, perhaps the most recently successful movie studio with its comic book adaptations. Marvel fell into this numbering pattern with the IRON MAN trilogy and subsequently seemed to have steered away from that practice. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER and THOR: THE DARK WORLD gave us a clear direction of the story and the brand. Then the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY’s sequel was revealed to sport a 2! Superficially this looks like lazy naming. However, in itself, this could be a simple homage to the movies of the 70’s and 80’s it derives much of its inspiration from. It also shows that sometimes simpler is the best route. Again, not everyone is a movie enthusiast, and a numeric designation makes them lose zero sleep.
I prefer this simplistic KONG renaming, it’s the old fashioned way, and frankly, a better manner to the franchise. Take the THIN MAN movies of the 1930’s. Utilized the brand familiarity by using a similar manner of adding THE THIN MAN to each subsequent film in the franchise both identify the franchise and the story to be told. The PLANET OF THE APES movies have also used this, both then and now, as a way to ensure that brand name recognition. The Tarzan novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs used a similar method, with the titular character’s name gracing each title in some manner. JUNGLE TALES OF TARZAN, TARZAN THE UNTAMED, TARZAN AND THE JEWELS OF OPAR and so forth. By contrast, Burroughs tagged each of his John Carter MARS books with the planet’s name. 100 years later that decision would lead to a marketing disaster.
Disney’s JOHN CARTER is a glowing example of how changing titles can make or break a movie. The marketing campaign behind JOHN CARTER was a disaster. Initially called JOHN CARTER OF MARS, Disney changed the name after a series of previous films with the word MARS in their title flopped. And even though the film didn’t formally give us its title until the movie’s end, wherein it boldly declares JOHN CARTER OF MARS, the damage had already been done. The reveal ultimately came off like a cheap parlor trick in direct contrast to the poorly produced promotional posters and so-so trailers, with the latter failing to mention the story’s history and all it had inspired. In the end, worry that the word MARS would be the death Nell of the film actually caused it to falter.
Another recent film to suffer this indignity was the incredible Tom Cruise GROUNDHOG DAY with aliens and machine guns, EDGE OF TOMORROW. The original title, ALL YOU NEED IS KILL, was changed prior to release for whatever reason. Perhaps the studio felt the name was too violent, who knows. But EDGE OF TOMORROW failed as a title, leading to what is essentially a third name change when home video release added a preface tag line that declares: LIVE, DIE, REPEAT, overshadowing EDGE OF TOMORROW. This is a practice often used in music when an artist names a song with words often not in the composition. Record studios will put a catchy chorus or hook from the tune in parentheses next to the artist’s chosen title. Like (DON’T FEAR) THE REAPER. Blue Oyster Cult named the song THE REAPER. The studio added (DON’T FEAR) because the chorus of the song is, “Don’t fear the reaper.” And again we’ve circled back to Marketing 101’s rule to keep it simple, stupid. Brand it and propagate said brand name so the public can come back again and again for more of what the brand promises, be it giant robots, talking monkeys or giant apes. Welcome to the Franchise Era of Hollywood, boys and girls. Take a number or a name, if you will. You’re about to get more familiar with the rebranded “sequel” on a level as you’ve never known before.